About halfway through "Thor: Ragnarok" — to be more precise, sometime after a bunch of people die, but long before a ton of stuff blows up — Thor does something he should have done at least five movies ago but never had the courage to pull off. He gets a haircut.
Sorry, I probably should have issued a warning before giving away one of the story's few legitimately thrilling developments (though I haven't said who administers the haircut).
Then again, the busy marketing mavens at Disney have already spoiled it for you, given how liberally they've splashed Chris Hemsworth's freshly groomed mug all over their advertising. You can hardly blame them. It's a handsome mug, certainly much too handsome to be hidden away in electronic-press-kit obscurity, or to be marred any longer by that greasy blond mop that always seemed just one sequel away from devolving into a mullet.
I wish I could report that Thor's new-and-improved coiffure were some kind of qualitative metaphor — that "Thor: Ragnarok" is, in fact, the shortest, tidiest, most beautifully maintained movie yet about everyone's favorite hammer-wielding god of thunder from another planet. At 130 minutes, though, the movie actually runs a bit longer than either "Thor" (2011) or "Thor: the Dark World" (2013), and although I lost count at a certain point, it's safe to say that it features more noisy scenes of CGI mass demolition and frenzied inter-dimensional transit than its predecessors combined.
It certainly features a lot more jokes. Directed by Taika Waititi, the gifted New Zealand filmmaker known for such goofily singular oddities as "What We Do in the Shadows" and "Hunt for the Wilderpeople," "Thor: Ragnarok" at least has a human pulse and doesn't take itself too seriously. Seriously, it doesn't. The only thing it takes seriously is that you know how un-seriously it takes itself.
To some extent, this has become the Marvel Studios way. I wouldn't be the first to point out that "The Avengers," "Guardians of the Galaxy" and their various offshoots are basically punchy, predictable sitcoms in comic-book drag. Or that, at their best, these movies offer an enjoyable antidote to the crushingly pretentious psychodrama of Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent and other cape-carrying members of the Martha Cinematic Universe.
But an excess of levity can quickly become its own kind of leadenness, and for long stretches between its genuinely amusing gags and set pieces, "Thor: Ragnarok," credited to the screenwriting trio of Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost, is a bit too taken with its own breezy irreverence to realize when it's time to rein it in.
From the opening scene of Thor hanging out in a subterranean cavern, blissfully unconcerned that he's being held captive by an ancient fire demon named Surtur (picture a more eloquent Balrog), you are invited to kick off your clogs, settle in and pay as much or as little attention to the plot as you please. One of the more disarming aspects of "Thor: Ragnarok," at least initially, is that it treats its relatively high-stakes premise as if it were no big deal: Ragnarok, for those audiences not up to speed on their intergalactic Norse mythology, refers to the apocalyptic doom that is one day destined to befall Thor's home kingdom of Asgard.
The cataclysm is set in motion by the sudden departure of his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and the equally sudden arrival of Hela (a divinely nasty Cate Blanchett), the evil, all-powerful firstborn sister he never knew he had.
What do you do when you find out you're related to someone who answers to the nickname "the Goddess of Death"? In the case of Thor and his treacherously twerpy brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston, invaluably snide as ever), they have little choice but to gape in awe at their sister's groundbreaking contributions to camp couture, complete with smoky goth eye shadow and a retractable antlered headdress that Maleficent, Chernabog and deer poachers across the universe would envy.
Hela swiftly establishes her Asgardian reign of terror, using her limitless arsenal of magical flying spears to turn all who oppose her into giant club sandwiches. Meanwhile, Thor, his once-mighty hammer proving utterly ineffectual against his sister's onslaught, is unceremoniously deposited on a dusty, garbage-strewn planet that wittily underscores the movie's own dumpster-diving aesthetic.
Waititi is both a diligent cinephile and a pop-cultural magpie, and here his bright, gaudy sets, his swirling, psychedelic colors and even the otherworldly synth blasts of Mark Mothersbaugh's score suggest a deliberately disjointed trip down memory lane, evoking inspirations as different as "Flash Gordon," "Star Wars" and "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." Perhaps the most recurrent cinematic influence here is that worse-than-you-remember 1984 chestnut "The NeverEnding Story," whose visually haphazard fantasyland seems trippily of a piece with this one. (Note the friendly rock monster, voiced by Waititi himself.)
Not long after he arrives, Thor is reunited with his old buddy the Hulk (played by Mark Ruffalo in his infrequent bursts of Bruce Banner lucidity). The pretext for this development is an epic gladiatorial contest overseen by a preening, sadistic ruler known as the Grandmaster played by Jeff Goldblum, a choice that's typical of the movie's self-consciousness. The joke is all in the casting; if only the actual performance were anywhere near as funny or inspired.
There are bright spots and imaginative touches here and there, including a high-functioning alcoholic mercenary named Valkyrie (the excellent Tessa Thompson) who winds up entangled in the inevitable war for Asgard's survival. But whether Waititi is cross-cutting distractedly between planets, letting Blanchett channel her inner Jean Marsh or trying to give Idris Elba and his orange contact lenses something to do, he never finds a proper groove or holds your attention for more than minutes at a time. Maybe that's not a bug, but a feature. The director has set himself the unenviable task of making a movie that never stops trying to wow you, all while seeming too cool and insouciant to care if you're wowed or not.
This viewer, attending a packed Thursday night show, was wowed in fits and starts, but mostly filled with a new, ungrudging respect for Hemsworth. The actor grins, scowls, charms and pummels his way through his latest stand-alone showcase with the kind of good-natured star wattage that might be the most underrated of the movie's many special effects; there are some scenes where I could almost swear Hemsworth's biceps were smiling.
This Thor isn't just the god of thunder; he's also the anti-Samson. Losing all that hair can only have magnified his appeal, though time will only tell if it sustains him through the many, many Marvel movies still ahead of him. The never-ending story continues.
Rated: PG-13, for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief suggestive material
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: In general release